Feb 11

Getting her really got to me: Natalie’s 8th Gotcha Day

Tomorrow, February 12, 2011, is my daughter Natalie’s Gotcha Day, the eighth anniversary of her adoption.  We adopted her at two and a half from an orphanage in Russia, and she came to us with a variety of special needs; ADHD and sensory processing disorder among them.

In a sense, Natalie’s eighth Gotcha Day is a first anniversary for me. You see, on each of the previous seven, one of my strongest feelings (second only to a giddy level of love) on this special day has been desperation; the thought that ran repeatedly through my mind was this: If I would have known that things would still be so hard a year later, I don’t know if I could have done it. Of course, I would have—and did—“do it”. Kept going, kept loving, kept living. What choice did I have, really?

But this year my feelings are different. This year I’m celebrating inside: I can do this! After eight years of having this spitfire in our lives—of being more exhausted and overwhelmed than I could have imagined–I’m doing more than just surviving.

It’s weird, but it’s the littlest things—things that I can finally handle again–that make me happy. I have time to sit down with the calendar and write in my 14 year old’s basketball schedule. I have the energy to take my vitamins. Don’t laugh at me! It’s sad, I know, but I’m serious.

So how did I get finally get here? What changed since last year? I think the biggest change came simply from Natalie maturing. At age 10, she’s finally past needing a toddler’s level of supervision (although she still demands constant entertainment—she can’t play by herself for any length of time)

And, it takes handfuls of medicine. Stimulants to reduce her hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and to improve her focus. Meds for sleep, meds to reduce aggression, meds for anxiety.  And those are just Natalie’s! About this time a year ago I had to add a dose of Wellbutrin on top of the Paxil I was already taking.

The third factor is having help—sending Nat to an after-school martial arts program three days a week, and having regularly scheduled respite services; blocks of time I can count on having a break, and spending time with my oh-so-neglected child Aaron.

Eight years! I feel like throwing my hat in the air, like Mary Tyler Moore, and singing: I might just make it after all!

(Photo from http://www.oocities.com/collegepark/union/8176/mtm.html.tmp)

Feb 09

My child is easy to love, but boy oh boy, he is *hard* to raise

kissIt’s 6:00 in the morning, and my husband, Mark, and I stumble around the kitchen, groggy, waiting for the coffee to perk and the bagels to toast. Our 8-year old, Little J, stomps into the room. He doesn’t answer our good mornings, doesn’t make eye contact, and doesn’t return our smiles. Instead, he yells: “For breakfast I want macaroni and cheese from the day after yesterday and two eggs! Cooked sloppy!” He pauses for a moment, then blurts, “please!” and flits out of the room, off on a mission only he knows, but likely involving PVC pipe, permanent markers, and the dogs.

Two minutes later he returns. “I forgot. Good morning, daddy,” he says, his voice a monotone drone, an octave lower than most boys his age.

“Good morning,” Mark says. “For breakfast do you want mac and cheese and eggs?” We’ve learned that it’s safer to try to get confirmation of Little J’s wants before cooking. That way when he refuses it, cries, screams, or even throws it – which experience has taught us are all possibilities – we can remind him that he not only said what he wanted once, but twice.

Little J hesitates. “Yes,” he says, but his head is shaking no. No. No. No. “Just a minute,” he says, like we’ve been practicing. He looks Mark in the eye and holds his head still. “Yes. I mean yes.”

“Awesome job asking for what you want,” I say. And I mean it. I can’t take things for granted with this child that I would with any other child. Knowing what he wants and asking for it appropriately does not always happen. Some days, yes. But not every day. His sheer unpredictability is highly predictable.

Little J is 8, and this “yes,” even accompanied with the no-shaking head, has been a long time coming. Six years and three months, to be exact. Six years and three months of toddler-like behavior from a child whose growing body and intelligence have often been at odds with his emotions and self-control.

I can’t take things for granted with this child that I would with any other child. Knowing what he wants and asking for it appropriately does not always happen. Some days, yes. But not every day. His sheer unpredictability is highly predictable.

When Little J came to us he was 15 months old, a gorgeous, affectionate boy who sat in my lap for seven hours on the airplane ride home, drooling on my hand, kissing my face with the open-mouth kisses that babies do best, and staring at me and my husband with eyes framed with the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on a baby. Two days before, a judge had granted our adoption in a small courtroom in Voronezh, Russia, and three hours later the babushkas were handing him to my husband and me, calling me ‘mama’ and commenting on the confident way I handled the baby. He couldn’t walk, had no language, was pale as a mushroom, and ate as if starving, but the international adoption doctor who reviewed the videos we sent said he was one of the healthiest children he’d ever seen from Russia. An excellent referral.

He was, and is, excellent. Excellent but different. Excellent, but challenging. Excellent, but hard to handle.

Within a day he was walking, probably held back because of lack of encouragement and modeling, and within three days he was using baby signs like a pro, especially when it came to food. He ate and ate and ate until he vomited, then he ate some more. He was malnourished and anemic and severely underweight but within 3 weeks he had gone up 2 sizes in clothing and by 3 months he had gained fifteen pounds, nearly doubling his weight. Hi head grew 3 centimeters in 3 months. He hit all his milestones in his toddler years like a champ: he quickly became self-sufficient, inquisitive, spirited, independent. He developed the all-important will that makes children of two say “no” to everything…but as he turned 3, and 4, and 5, and now 8…it never left.

That, plus his speed-demon, sensory-seeking behavior, his fearlessness, his rages and tantrums and destructiveness, his teeny-tiny attention span, took us from pediatrician to therapist to psychologist to psychiatrist. The diagnoses flew: ADHD, SPD, ODD, PDD, ups and downs of a cyclical nature (hmm…). Medications were prescribed, tried, failed, and prescribed some more. I read every parenting book, every book about ADHD, SPD, ODD, explosive children, nurturing hearts, love and logic, challenging children – you name it! Through every medication, diagnosis, book, and expert we learned something, used something, and discarded others, until finally we came onto the final diagnosis that made sense: fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Finally, we seem to be at a truce. His behavior has been stable for about a year and as parents we’re starting to wrap our heads around what we need to do to have peace in our home. Maybe we’re in a place of acceptance? More likely, we’ve grown tired and need a break. It’s so hard fighting the battle!

In any case, maybe by reading this you can understand why I say my child is easy to love, but so, so hard to raise. And perhaps because you’re reading this, you have your own easy to love, hard to raise child as well.

Feb 08

We all need community

When my oldest son was a baby I was fortunate enough join a weekly playgroup that met in a neighborhood park. 11 years later I am still friends with most of those people. Some have moved, some drifted off, but the core group of us has stayed tight over the past decade. Our closeness is partially due to the serendipity of it all: I’d love to say that we recognized kindred spirits when we met each other and it was meant to be, but at the beginning it was something more elemental than that: we needed each other. It didn’t matter that we were different politically or professionally. It didn’t matter that our parenting philosophies weren’t the same or our families were formed by adoption or birth or foster care or that some of us lived in rented apartments and some of us lived in big suburban houses. All that mattered was that we were there, at the park, every Friday morning. We were there.

All of us were the primary caregivers to our children; some of us were stay-at-home moms or dads, some of us worked at home, some of us worked out of the home. The only other thing we had in common was that were were first-time parents with Friday mornings free and enough self-knowledge to realize that being with other adults in the same situation was crucial to our well-being.

With my second son I’ve had to work harder to find a core group of supporters. Yes, that original group is still around and of course they love my family and help us out – but with my second son and his variety of behavioral issues it’s been a little harder to find common ground. Parenting him is much, much more difficult than parenting my first son, and while I know that all parenting is challenging none of that original group has faced the same kinds of challenges my husband and I have when trying to figure out the best way to deal with boy #2.

We’ve had to cast our net wider for this support – beyond the playground, beyond our little town, and out into the wide world provided to us by the Internet. But that net has provided rich resources: through my on-line friendship with Kay Marner, my co-editor for Easy to Love, Hard to Raise and my writing for A Mom’s View of ADHD as well as my constant search for information about whatever issue my child has at the moment, I’ve found many, many people who are dealing with similar things that I deal with every day. An on-line playgroup, in a way. Just as valuable as that first playgroup at that little neighborhood park so many years ago.

So, welcome, playgroup members! I’m so happy that our book is creating a place where we can all meet, commiserate, and share stories and solutions. We all need a place to come where people understand.

(picture by flickr user listener 42)

Jan 31

Kay’s three wishes for parents of “hard to raise” kids

My sweet and sassy girl!

Compiling and editing the book Easy to Love but Hard to Raise has been a fascinating and rewarding process. (Unfortunately, the process is still in process. In other words, I need to quit blogging and get the thing done!) Nearly 30 parents contributed essays to the book; stories about what it’s really like to parent a challenging child. And while each parent’s journey is unique, it’s the similarities in their (our) experiences that most surprised me.

When the essays are read collectively certain patterns emerge; of feelings, experiences, and stages that a parent can expect to go through in the course of parenting a challenging child. Together, these common experiences reveal an archetype of Everyparent of a an Easy to Love, but... child. While the parent essays are the heart of the book, this Everyparent construct is its biggest gift. I believe it will offer parents much-needed opportunities for self-awareness, acceptance, and healing.

If you’re interested in learning more, you’ll have your chance when the book is  released! But this post from my additudemag.com ADHD parenting blog offers a fortune cookie-sized taste of what the Easy to Love, but… Everyparent will teach us.  Click here to whet your appetite!